Harry Potter Goes to College

Editor’s note: The latest installment in the wizarding movies, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, will likely make an appearance under many Christmas trees this year. A more important question is whether the books should make an appearance in college courses. This article was originally published in the Charlotte Observer on August 9, 2007.

Universities across the country are adding Harry Potter to the curriculum in disciplines as diverse as English, philosophy, history, Latin, and science. Edmund M. Kern, an associate professor of history at Lawrence University and author of the reader’s guide The Wisdom of Harry Potter, is teaching an entire course on Harry Potter this fall.

The generation of students entering college this year has a mania for J. K. Rowling’s seven-book series about a young boy’s adventures in a fantastic magical world. Harry Potter’s ongoing battle against evil, with its themes of choice and consequences, life and death, and love and hate, reverberates among this generation as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five captured the students of the 1960s.

But are Harry Potter books good enough for the college curriculum?

A lot of “experts” don’t think so. Some argue that students at the college level should be reading moody mid-twentieth century works such as Waiting for Godot or No Exit – anything to open their eyes to the world beyond their predictable middle-class lives.

Traditionalists insist upon Dickens, Wharton and Virgil, arguing that Harry Potter and its ilk should be left to children. The Harry Potter books are just too sensationalistic, fantastical, and gimmicky, not to mention violent. Carol Iannone, editor-at-large for Academic Questions, calls Harry Potter “something of a sensation, a passing fad, and not the vestibule to a lifetime of reading as was predicted.” Another sign of disdain for Harry Potter: the New York Times created a new “children’s literature” bestsellers list because Harry Potter was crowding out “adult” bestsellers.

Despite the eminent critics and the New York Times’ put-down, millions of people have recognized Harry Potter for what it is: great literature.

It’s true that not all of the books are equally good or instructive. The first two are noticeably less polished than the subsequent five. Any critic who read only the first book would be justified in dismissing the Harry Potter series as just a very good children’s story. But as Harry matures from his first year at Hogwart’s, so does Rowling’s writing. The stories as a whole, and the last several books in particular, have much to offer college readers.

On the surface, the tale of the boy-wizard Harry Potter is a fantasy. However, at its heart, the story is a coming-of-age boarding school story that happens to be set against the backdrop of a fantastic wizarding world. For college students, Harry’s journey from ignorance and innocence to knowledge and experience is just as instructive as – and much more exciting than – that of Holden Caulfield or Jane Eyre.

Moreover, fantasy can teach college students, many of whom are uninitiated in any kind of literature, how to discover new realities, to suspend their disbelief, and to consider new and exciting ideas. Fantasy challenges students to imagine, to explore a genre that is not “the real world.” Good fantasy, like science fiction and dystopian novels, creates sets of rules that are new and foreign to students, challenging them to think critically and logically in ways that they haven’t before.

Harry Potter can teach traditional literature-class lessons as well. The whole story, from the first chapter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to the last masterful sentence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is quite possibly the finest example of a “hero’s journey” since Homer’s Odyssey; it is arguably the best example in English literature.

Students can learn about archetypes. Of Carl Jung’s four main categories, students can examine Harry Potter, the Self, in its relentless struggle against Lord Voldemort, the Shadow. Or students can interpret Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore and Molly Weasley as the Hero, the Wise Old Man, and the Great Mother. Harry’s loyal friends Ron and Hermione serve in the role of archetypal sidekick as did Samwise Gamgee or Sancho Panza. These timeless ideas, like all good literature, remain an important part of our “cultural memory,” as Jung described it.

Rowling has created a rich universe, rife with symbols, epithets, literary techniques, allusions, and a beautiful example of third-person limited viewpoint. Professors could compare Harry as an unreliable third-person narrator in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to Hamlet’s indecision and possible insanity in Shakespeare’s play. There are even some vocabulary words that students might learn; the bits of French, German, Latin and other languages that creep into proper names, place names, and spells are thrilling discoveries. For a college instructor, there is much from which to choose.

Critics may exclude works from the classification of literature on the grounds of a poor standard of grammar and syntax, of an unbelievable or disjointed story-line, or of inconsistent or unconvincing characters. But J. K. Rowling commits none of these sins. To exclude her work would deprive students of a rich, enchanting universe and one heck of a story.

Most importantly, a literature class is useless if students leave the course loathing the very word. Good literature classes should provide an appreciation for and a love of literature.

Harry Potter has earned a place on university campuses. Including the books among other great works in a college course would enrich the material and enchant the students.
Although a class devoted entirely to the series would neither be helpful nor academically rigorous, there is room on campus for a little fantasy. Harry Potter shouldn’t replace the classics. It should take its place among them as one of the best examples of contemporary English literature.

Jenna Robinson is the campus outreach coordinator of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.